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Tracking great white sharks with drones right from an iPhone

Stashed in: Under the sea!, Shark!, Drones!, Shark Week

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Scientists know so much about what’s happening above the surface of the water, but due to a lack of sensory equipment, they know comparatively little about what’s going on below. Most data for studying sharks, or any ocean phenomenon, is gathered via buoy (which are immobile), satellite (inexact, usually confined to surface measurement and not always in range) or scientists on a ship (time consuming and expensive). When predicting the weather on land, meteorologists can lean on countless weather stations to gather data and generate the forecast.

“We have nothing like that,” Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald says, noting there are only about a dozen data gathering buoys in all of the Gulf of Mexico. His group has been trying to study the effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the ocean surface, a critical interface for atmospheric changes, and how it has altered phytoplankton growth. “As a consequence we’re always playing catchup.”

This is where drones come in. Autonomous craft are reshaping the way scientists study the ocean and two local bay area companies, Liquid Robotics and upstart Saildrone, funded by the Marine Science and Technology Foundation (founded by Google chairman Eric Schmidt), have been making waves with their unmanned gliders and sailboats. Saildrone recently completed a voyage around Hawaii and back to the Bay Area with its autonomous sailboats. But now the group must prove its crafts can do more than simply get from point A to point B — like gather critical ocean data.

“The next stage is to demonstrate that we can do real, valuable science,” says Saildrone lead researcher Richard Jenkins.

Swim sharks swim!

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